What would it take to reimagine the future of collaborative governance? Research into transformation ecosystems


Part 4 of a 4-part series – The behind-the-scenes look at what it is really like to try and create change. Some personal reflections.

At the beginning of this year, I started a research fellowship with Arantzazulab. Our idea was simple – find examples of where transformation has happened, on the ground, where said transformation was led by communities or used some form of collaborative governance. We wanted to use and share the findings, hoping to work with others interested in creating systems change by working with and through ecosystems.

One of the many things I have learnt from being a leader in the “change making space” is that people who work in this space are very often overworked and burnt out. I am now deeply motivated by the idea that shedding light onto what goes on behind-the-scenes is actually a critical part of making change. I hope that by showing some of the less commonly seen dimensions of leading large-scale innovation or social change initiatives – the personal impact it has, the drudgery, frustrations, and the excitement – we might be able to do it better, whilst also taking better care of people.

Parts 1 – 3 attempted to provide a neat summary of the research, our key findings, and our hypothesis. Part 4 is about showing how we got there. To share this journey, we need to start at the very beginning with the original “straightforward” research question.

What do you even mean by…?

In Part 1 we describe how the initial research kicked off through reaching out to our existing networks. I was excitedly telling people about the work and what I was hoping to find. If I am being honest (and now in retrospect very naive) was expecting our networks to know of exceptional transformation examples and to make referrals to people we could interview. Simple right? What happened instead was surge of questions…

“What do you mean by transformation? Do you also mean transition? Does it matter if the idea came from the community, or can it be government initiated but community adopted? Can the transformation be in progress, or does it have to be completed? What would a completed transformation look like anyway? What scale, size, timeframe are you interested in? By governance, do you only mean within public institutions?”

Even the seemingly solid ground of ‘on the ground’ did not hold. From the earliest stages of the research, it was clear that our initial thoughts, expectations and research focus needed to be expanded.

Resisting the urge to ‘fix the immediate problem’

Within the days of starting, it felt like the research question, and my brain, had undergone combinatorial explosion. It was impossible to know where to focus first. There is a natural instinct to try and answer the questions people were asking directly, yet it didn’t feel right to spend the entire fellowship trying to define the terms. Others have spent their careers deeply reflecting and generating definitions and while these are useful, the ones we could find generally did not seem to bridge well across different disciplines. The ones that did cross over were extremely general in nature. Whilst captivated by their academic insight it was difficult to see how this could be practically applied. This experience was also echoed by two of the interviewees.

“What I would say now (after having defined many terms in a white paper) is that the definition is not all that useful. It satisfies the needs of others by helping them have comfort with your work, but in practice it is not functionally very useful. That’s because all intended change needs to be defined locally”

“I have a badge that says – to define is to limit”

Plus, intuitively I was already getting a sense that the initial bombardment of questions was actually a clue, or system signal that we should pay attention to. The fact that so many people, who I know to value their ability to conceptualise and operate in ambiguity and uncertainty, seemed to be seeking definition-like clarifications was intriguing. It turns out this hunch was very useful – and shows up later in the insights presented in Parts 1 – 3.

Delving deeply into the expert knowledge and seemingly unconnected research

Instead of trying to define, I started consuming content as fast as I could. All formats, all channels, weird, wonderful, strongly related to the topic and some things that seemed entirely off base. I have created a bibliography, although it only represents about 30% of what was explored. It was not possible to include non-published, notes, diagrams, conversations etc. But hopefully you can see some of this on the Miro board and other links we have shared to the working material.

As you can imagine, all of this content did not help the combinatorial explosion (LOL). Working like this is challenging and has almost no outwardly visible productivity. It is honestly extremely difficult to move past the discomfort of feeling like I am ‘not really working’ because I am not ‘producing’ something tangible. This style of production-based working is so inbuilt into our ways of thinking about and participating in work, that we hardly notice it anymore. Yet jumping from question, especially deep and complex questions, to a quick answer or solution is likely to be one of the critical things that keeps us from making progress.

So, I pushed the discomfort to the side and delved deep into both expert and scholarly reports and wandered through tonnes of more informal, reflection based and experiential material. Sometimes staying directly on topic and other times venturing into the seemingly unrelated. Working like this is one of the few ways I know to surface unknown biases and to break default patterns of thinking. It feels a bit like being completely immersed in the open ocean – hard to know where you are, almost impossible to know where you are going. And you can forget about trying to predict what you might bump into. Working like this means you find thinkers, philosophies, scientific studies, imagery, and models that you would never have known to look for.

Finding ways to stay connected

One of the challenges of working internationally is not being in the same physical location. Each week the core team had meetings to connect and share, but despite my best efforts to discuss and describe my exciting new findings, the sessions became weekly verbal ramblings, which I knew at the time made absolutely no sense (thanks for being patient!)

For those of you who haven’t tried it yet, we experimented with weeknotes. At the end of each week, I wrote notes as a practice for helping to structure what I was learning, frame the questions the research was raising and attempt to sense make and find subtle patterns that might normally go unnoticed (thanks @cassie for the inspiration). This gave my colleagues a chance to read, reflect and prepare their feedback prior to our weekly meeting.

Whilst this process and rhythm worked well between us, it was still very hard as the author to take learnings and fragments of ideas that are not yet fully formed, and translate them into the written word. We are now experimenting with weeknotes that are 7-minute videos which include a verbal account of the week paired with hand drawn figures showing the flow of what happened and was discovered. This gives a more organic, less formalised feel to the weeknotes. They are much easier to prepare, and it seems easy to digest. We will keep you up to date with how the experiment progresses. So far though, it’s going well.

You have to start (trying) to make sense

Whilst immersion and seeking new and unusual ways of conceptualising is extremely valuable, at some point it is critical to come back to dry land and actually get stuff done. I have a set of questions I always turn to when I need this type of focussing. These questions are simple at first glance, but require people and organisations to articulate themselves within complex ecosystems, not from their own perspective, but in relation to others.

The questions were –

  • What are the elements that have been key to activate transformation ecosystems?
  • What are the governance models that are supporting those transformations?
  • What are the challenges that they are encountering?
  • What are the strengths in each model?
  • Who is Arantzazulab in the international ecosystem?
  • What would the lab like its role to be in the international system?
  • What is Arantzazulab’s theory of change for why it wants share and learn internationally?

Starting the process of answering these questions helped us to see where Arantzazulab wanted to interact with international collaborators, although there is of course, still much more ‘exploring answers’ work to be done. It started to show us where we thought action in the global ecosystem could create meaningful change. It showed us what we knew, but also what we didn’t know and needed to learn from others. It helped us to focus the research, and most importantly it formed the basis for creating our hypothesis.

Landing on a hypothesis

Before stating the hypothesis, in the spirit of sharing the ‘behind-the-scenes’ it is important to note here that when the hypothesis first started to emerge from the research, it scared us a little. It felt far bolder than we were initially anticipating and prompted us to ask questions about our legitimacy and authority to put forward such a hypothesis. Interestingly, the question about ‘who actually has the legitimacy and authority’ when solving large-scale complex challenges, has become a key insight from the research, one which we have yet to find any clear solution to. What we did find is these constructs are not fixed, actors who start with legitimacy can lose it, and others can build it over time.

So, we pushed ahead with the hypothesis, and asked (and will continue to ask) anyone who finds what we are proposing interesting or directly relevant to their work, to find ways of working on this together. We want to work together with others by modelling the very changes we seek to make in the world. That is, we need to create the future-fit organisation and governance on ourselves.

We hypothesise that for transformation to occur, at the scale needed to address the massive challenges associated with climate change, decreasing trust in governments and democracy, deep structural economic disparities, and human inequalities, we need the following –

  1. New future-fit institutional and governance structures. These will need to maximise local cultures and connect through to planetary level ecosystems.
  2. New funding mechanisms that move beyond project-based, consultancy-based or membership-based mindsets.
  3. To learn from systems convenors who are already acting in their local ecosystems to catalyse and amplify knowledge and capabilities, to inform the future-fit design.
  4. To identify any new roles that we may need to create in the future-fit design.

This future needs to operate at planetary level with deep accountabilities and responsibilities across borders as if we were one world.

Deviating from well made plans

We had originally planned to host an in-person event in Arantzazu in July this year. The aim was to bring together leading thinkers in the space and find ways to collaborate and create together. However, an in-person event meant that we could only reasonably (with respect to budget, time, carbon miles etc) invite people from Europe. This felt at odds with our newly developed hypothesis. Shifting to an online event, which was global, felt like the only reasonable solution, but not one we could deliver in July with the quality that we would be happy with.

Instead, we decided to push the global event into 2023 and host a smaller gathering in July of this year. We also worked to integrate into the existing local Basque innovation ecosystem events. Our express purpose was to get feedback on our work to date. We wanted to know if our hypothesis and insights were resonating. Did a group of our peers think we were on the right track? What had we missed? And most importantly, what did they think of our new plans for where to go next?

Calling for new opportunities and pathways

Our small gathering in July consisted of ten people. This group helped us to test the soundness of the hypothesis. They gave us details of the examples they had worked on. We identified together clearer focus areas – the places where energy and effort could lead to large changes. We were able to refine the scope of the research and find the places where going deeper would give us richness, new thinking, models or novel approaches.

The local Basque co-creation ecosystem provided insight and offered ways for us to translate the research into actionable steps on the ground. They provided the leadership and will be a key partner in creating future experiments to help define what new roles are needed to activate systems change.

Finally, we had several people reach out to us after publishing Parts 1 – 3. In all cases, the people were leading change of their own and many of our insights had resonated with them. Their reflections and examples of their own work were invaluable in shaping our thinking and we are looking forward to working with them in an ongoing way.

Where to next?

We will now be hosting a global gathering toward the end of quarter 1 next year. The purpose is to find and invite systems convenors or other leaders of large-scale change who are working at the edge of key problems. Our aim at this gathering is to go deep into these challenges (that have been outlined in previous papers) and build novel ideas to test and explore together. Relationship and shared knowledge are necessary to go deep, so in order to build these elements before the global gathering, we will be hosting a series of satellite discussions and relationship building sessions in the lead up to the gathering. Please check the Arantzazulab website for details on dates and how to join. We will begin posting here in December for our programme of events starting in January.

And just like in Parts 1 – 3, if we have piqued your interest please reach out and connect with us! You can contact Michelle, Naiara or Ione at info@arantzazulab.eus.

Written by: Michelle Zucker, Naiara Goia and Ione Ardaiz.